Chapter 57: Prelude
As Thales walked out of the stone chamber with complicated and indecipherable emotions, he already made his guess regarding the long chime and what would be happening next.
"Is it happening today?" He looked calmly at Gilbert and Jines who had been waiting for quite some time.
'It's so sudden.'
Gilbert's gaze was filled with sighs and sadness. On the other hand, Jines' cold expression had a hint of hesitance in it.
'Shouldn't they be cheering and jumping in joy instead? Why do they look like this?' Thales thought, devoid of energy. His mind was filled with what just happened in the stone chamber and what would be happening next.
For some reason, although his heart was heavy at the moment, he could conceal it in his expression. 'Is this the so-called "poker face"?'
Gilbert spoke bitterly, "Please accept my apologies. This was not what I intended… Eckstedt's emergency envoy will be arriving in Constellation tonight. Regardless of whether they are declaring war or making a compromise, at that time you… His Majesty will…"
Gilbert furrowed his brows extremely tightly. He wanted to say something, but sighed deeply and stopped himself.
"Do not waste any more time. The National Conference would be held at three in the afternoon. His Majesty ordered us to bring him into the waiting room before one." Jines cut Gilbert off. Her gaze was obscure and indecipherable.
The former Foreign Affairs Minister and the first-grade female official had changed into dark-colored, somber formal clothing. The eight female servants behind them held, with flat expressions, eight full salvers as they stood quietly and neatly on both sides of the corridor.
The bell chimed for the second time.
Jines walked forward with a complicated expression and led the heavy-hearted Thales into another room. The eight female servants followed them in.
Renaissance Palace, outer palace wall, the first portcullis.
This was where Thales passed by yesterday. The place was barely in order due to the guards' rude yells and merciless berating. Nobles of various ranks and important figures of various occupations formed a long queue there. With varying facial expressions, they all fought for a place to enter Renaissance Palace.
In front of Renaissance Palace, at the position of the first heavy and mottled portcullis, tense guards conducted strict checks and allowed only those who were qualified to attend the conference.
"Me! I am the deputy chairman of the Iron Smelting Guild, and have the right to enter and observe! What? There are twenty-five deputy chairmen in the Iron Smelting Guild? Haih, you wouldn't know this, but they're just there to make up the numbers. I'm the only one who is more special. Let me tell you, look at my black hair and black eyes! Do you understand? Did you know that our family's craftsmanship originated from the Dawn Dynasty in the Far East? It was before the Battle of Eradication… Fine, fine, fine! A man of honor talks things through and does not resort to force! I won't go in, is this not enough?!"
"I am Eros Kata, a fabric merchant who was granted special permission by the royal family! I can go in! See! This is a signed certificate from the late King Aydi, and there is even Prince Midier's signature below it!"
"I also have the invitation Mindis the Third sent to our family years ago here! Although it is a little old, it is still only a hundred and fifty years ago. Hey, don't be violent. I'll leave on my own accord! I'll leave on my own accord!"
"Hey! Punk! Do you still remember me? I am Lazan, a forensic officer at the Central Police Station. We were colleagues for half a year! Are there any seats left in the Hall of Stars?"
"I am on duty here, I don't know. However, my cousin-brother who is a castle guard told me that the big hall is almost half-filled. If you are not a noble who is above the rank a viscount, you won't be able to get in at all!"
"Then, is joining the crowds at Star Plaza our only choice? To listen as those guards pass the decisions of the more influential people down, tier by tier?"
"Let it be. For people of our status, even if we manage to get into the Hall of Stars, we would be sitting at the bottommost and outermost tier, quietly listening to the important people at the uppermost and innermost tier talk. It would be impossible for us to chip in!"
"My God… Those are the heraldry for the Single-Winged Crow and the Sword of the Twin Towers! It's the Kroma and Karabeyan Families' carriage fleet! Make way, quickly! It wouldn't end well for you if you offend them!"
"So what if they are nobles? Nobles also have to obey basic rules… Wait, no, they have to obey the Constellation Provisional Constitution!"
"What sort of joke is that?! They are not normal nobles. Those people are high-ranking vassals who were conferred their titles by the royal families. They have more than a thousand private soldiers, possess vast territories, and have countless subjects… As a forensic officer, you should increase your knowledge. Do you know about the Thirteen Distinguished Families? These people, the royal family, and the Six Great Clans can laugh and joke together…"
"Why do you know this so well?"
"My apologies. I used to work in Kisen Family's manor in the Eastern City District and taught their family's three sons the basic skills for combat…"
Ignoring the jostling of the crowds around him, Count Derek Kroma's cavalier unit and Count Turami Karabeyan's carriage passed through the crowds, managing to reach Renaissance Palace only half an hour after the bell chimed for the second time.
The two counts, Derek Kroma and old Karabeyan, were commonly known as the two highly ranked nobles among the Thirteen Distinguished Families and the thirteen high-ranking vassals, only second to the royal family and the Six Great Clans. With the Single-Winged Crow flag and the Sword of the Twin Towers' emblem and heraldry, they effortlessly passed through the crowd. They then went past the first outer palace wall and the palace door amid the crowd's low murmurs, accompanied by the guards and the Palace Officer's respectful gazes.
Director Lorbec, who was in the carriage, sighed lightly. "There has never been so many people at the National Conference before. In the Desert War's National Conference, only the leaders of various trades, wealthy businessmen, and those rancid, prestigious scholars attended. Among the Six Great Clans, only two clans attended, and among the thirteen Distinguished Families, only five families were there.
"However, for His Majesty to win over the battle support he needs, the nineteen Noble Families have no choice but to obey the resolution of the National Conference." Karabeyan looked outside the carriage window solemnly. The crowd became bigger and bigger. "The few noble families who refused to obey the resolution were, at some point, besieged by furious citizens, and even encountered difficulties in various fields. Although they are only vassals of the large families, this is not a good sign."
The young Count of Wing Fort, Derek Kroma rode his horse near to the carriage window. His expression was unpleasant. "My Lords, we should hurry up. Even though the nineteen noble families have specific seats in the conference and will not be forced to 'listen' to the conference at Star Plaza under the palace balcony, soon, we might need to fight our way through the populace and those upstart nobles."
On the other hand, the Star Plaza, located right below the Hall of Stars to the northwest of Renaissance Palace, was filled with noise and commotion.
A pioneering effort by the Virtuous King, the National Conference was said to be directed to all citizens. It was the only time when the populace and minor nobles can listen to Constellation's highest powers play their games, and it will be held this evening! Every single topic, discussion and decision would be passed through the entire Star Plaza by specially-assigned people, and all the citizens in the entire capital will be notified!
Genard frowned and looked at the bustling crowd in the entire plaza. He and his city defense squad were temporarily transferred over from the Eastern City District in the morning to maintain the order of Star Plaza together with the police force.
'God have mercy. How would that be possible?' It would be impossible for them, with only a force of approximately one thousand men, to maintain the order of Star Plaza which can accommodate tens of thousands of people. It would even be impossible for Duke John's Starlight Brigade from years ago to maintain any sort of order.
Everybody's gaze was concentrated on the location of the conference above them, the hall with its outdoor area facing the Star Plaza—the Hall of Stars!
Under the bellows of thousands of guards in the plaza and the gigantic city defense ballistae, which have been positioned on Renaissance Palace's walls where they would be on standby to attack, the crowds nonchalantly jostled and exchanged information about the king's sudden decision to hold a National Conference.
"I guess that it will be about the huge explosion in Red Street Market a month ago! Eh, is it because the Blood Bottle Gang was so badly defeated by the Black Street Brotherhood that they became extremely anxious and went insane?"
"Can such a small gang battle alarm the nobility up there?"
"Where did you get this gossip? And a well-presented one at that. What's a Blood Bottle Gang and Black Street Brotherhood? How can there be gangs in the capital city? We are living in a modern society! Our lives now are so pleasant! Why are you spreading these damaging theories? Ah? Looking at your sneaky face, you must be a spy from a foreign power, right?"
"Believe me because I'm definitely right. It must be the Barren Bone people rebelling again! Those tradesmen from Camus Union who are greedier than vampires are definitely behind it! Last month, they detained my family's trade caravan! They wanted to impose on us fifty percent tax! Can you believe that? Fifty out of a hundred percent!"
"Those damned Barren Bone mongrels! Why is the Legendary Wing so soft-hearted? He should learn a thing or two from His Majesty—catch all of them and bury them alive at the Desert God's Altar like Orcs!"
"You are not allowed to insult the Legendary Wing! He's extremely handsome. Indeed, he is an existence that could unite the entire Western Peninsula with his looks alone!"
"My aunt is a female servant in the house of a viscount in the Morning Star Region. She told me that Eckstedt had an accident, I think it was at the north. Oh yeah, why is their diplomat group not here yet?"
"How is that possible? The 'Fortress Treaty' was signed to take effect for twenty years. Besides that, we have the Fortress Flower that guards the Broken Dragon Fortress well. There are also powerful families in the Northern Territory such as the Arunde family, the Zemunto Family and the Friess Family. It can't possibly be like twelve years ago…"
"Don't forget that the Kingdom's Wrath is still in the capital city! With just him alone, along with that bow of his, he can eradicate twenty thousand people from Eckstedt!"
"Eckstedt probably doesn't even have twenty thousand soldiers throughout its entire country."
"In short, that was what I meant!"
"I think it's most probably northwest's Sera Dukedom. A relative that came to seek refuge with me from faraway said that lately, there is an evil witch spreading a plague there. Their neighbors, Anlenzo Dukedom and Norton Dukedom have shut their borders. Wait, the plague hasn't spread to Constellation yet, right? The nobles from the southwest did not come, right? How about the Tabark Family, Karabeyan, and Lascia? Don't tell me that they are dead from the plague?
"So, does this mean that the price of herbs would rise? I have to restock immediately!"
"You guys are talking rubbish. My secret source told me that His Majesty will be choosing a person out of the Six Great Clans to become the next king!"
"What? Then how about the Jadestar Royal Family? Our family has the royal family's special permission for furniture trading rights!"
"What else can be done? Can you force His Majesty to give birth to one more son?"
"I think that Count Covendier is not bad! Last year, when he came to inspect the grand bazaar, he held my hand before! With a count like that, how can our country not prosper?"
"But I think that Tabark Family's daughter isn't bad, either! We should learn from Anlenzo Dukedom. Think about it, a beautiful and young queen. Oh God, my heart is about to melt…"
"Stop joking! That's for rural places like Anlenzo and Alumbia! Our mighty Constellation is the successor of the Empire! How can we let a woman become king? I am not discriminating women, but we have to admit to objective differences!"
"Young man, stop making wild guesses over there!"
"I am just concerned with politics!"
"I think that you are a keyboard- cough, cough, I'm sorry, a mouth cannon warrior!"
"You should believe in the Kingdom, believe in His Majesty and believe in the Imperial Conference! How can they not know something that even you know?"
Thales slowly stood and looked at the young noble in the mirror who wore luxurious clothing and a cold expression.
His hair was no longer messy, but neatly cut and combed into a hairstyle that was simple yet pleasant, making him look alert and handsome.
Jines even clipped on a subtly sparkling crystal stone earring on his left ear without regards for his facial expression.
He had on a long-sleeved jacket that was made thicker and decorated with dark-blue glittering crystals. Coupled with a white undershirt, cuffs that were nicely buttoned up with Crystal Drops, and a specially tailored macramé mantle. His attire made his originally frail body look straight and tall.
He raised his hands. His pure white, leather gloves were well-fitted and shiny. It seemed to give more depth to his every move.
The noble, black slacks, paired with a belt buckle styled in the fashion of stars, along with the expensive leather boots that boosted his height by two inches, allowed him to walk with the gracefulness of nobles.
A nine-pointed star emblem which signified the Jadestar Family was sewn on the back of Thales' clothes, and a gold-and-silver nine-pointed star brooch was clipped on his chest. They sparkled under the light.
The female servants sprayed a bit of cologne on him. It was almost undetectable, but made his scent closer to that of the upper-class society.
Thales chuckled bitterly and sighed 'Haih. Fashionable clothing, graceful manners, established etiquette and limited knowledge. These are the best tools to segregate and divide people into different social statuses. This is the circle of nobles. This damned, evil, culture.'
Even Jines and Gilbert, who were observing from the side, could not help but nod.
Jines sighed, her tone was bitter. "It is almost time. Kessel- His Majesty hopes that you would go in earlier."
Thales knew that their emotions were not quite right. However, since he was already there… He cleared all thoughts from his mind and slowly left with Gilbert and Jines.
"I need to get a final confirmation from you on some things."
Thales raised his head and looked at Gilbert.
"Your name- I mean, His Majesty originally planned to give you a name that is more suitable for the 'Jadestar Tradition', such as John and Midier, or Kessel and Tormond. After all, the name Thales is one used by the populace. It will be appearing in the royal pedigree for the first time… and will allow those who are observant to find out about your past…"
Thales turned his head back and while walking forward, spoke without changing his expression, "Thales."
"I want to be called Thales."
'I will not change my name. Those past experiences… I will not forget, nor forsake any of them.'
Staring at the endlessly long corridor, Thales clenched his fists tightly and paid no heed to Gilbert's hesitant gaze.
"Haih... I shall follow your will." Under Jines' murderous gaze, Gilbert sighed.
It was a very long corridor. Thales did not bat an eyelash. He took a few dozen steps forward and stopped. There was a large black door in front of him.
"This is the Hall of Stars. You would be going into the dark, innermost room. You do not have to be nervous. When it is time, I will open the door, and you just have to do as you were told beforehand." Gilbert lowered his head as he spoke, but he immediately looked at one side of the door. The middle-aged noble put on a puzzled expression.
"Aida? At this time, you should be beside His Majesty and protecting him!"
Thales looked ahead, a petite figure was leaning against one side of the door.
'It's her.' Thales could recognize her as the cloaked woman from yesterday who led the Royal Guards and saved him from Zayen. Her face was still covered by the cloak and could not be seen under the dim lighting.
The cloaked woman had her arms crossed as she got up from the wall she was leaning on. "Hey, kid, that masked guy asked me to give you this gift on his behalf."
A young, pleasant, and lively voice rang as the cloaked woman passed him something.
Thales was stunned. He took it and did not even pay attention to the cloaked woman's overly fair, smooth, and supple skin.
It was a black dagger-sheath, and it came with a buckled leather strap. Words were engraved on one side: 'A King does not gain respect by virtue of his bloodline.'
Thales resisted the urge to subconsciously touch his chest. With complicated emotions, he pulled out JC's dagger from his belt and inserted it into the sheath—the size was just right.
"Thank you- Yodel… is he well?" Thales calmed down his breath and buckled the sheathed dagger onto his belt.
"Don't worry. That sort of person won't die for now." The cloaked woman chuckled lightly. "I understand him very well."
Thales nodded and walked past her, standing still in front of the door.
Looking at the black stone door in front of him, the boy clenched his teeth.
'Only one more step.'
Behind him, Gilbert's frown became deeper and deeper while Jines bit hard on her bottom lip. On the other hand, the cloaked woman exercised her neck nonchalantly.
Thales did not turn. He just gazed at the stone-gray floor before him and faintly said, "Gilbert, will I never be able to turn back after taking this step?"
Gilbert was stunned, but Thales did not plan to let him answer.
The boy raised his head and forced a smile with difficulty. "No... Perhaps, when I first opened my eyes in this world, there was already no turning back. I can only keep walking forward."
Having heard this, Jines' gaze became hesitant and hard to understand. She extended her hand, but was pulled back by Gilbert who shook his head beside her.
"Do not worry, be a little happier. This is a good thing, Sir Gilbert, Madam Jines, and… this cloaked lady. A good person once told me to..."
Illuminated by the Everlasting Lamps with sunlight that shone in from the windows on both sides of the corridor, Thales turned around. He stuck out his thumb and cracked a bright smile. "… just take it as another game."
Before the other three could react, Thales pushed the door open and walked inside.
A gust of cold air rushed past the large stone door. The lighting ahead was dim, and it seemed as if there was endless darkness.
Thales' figure disappeared amid that darkness.
Gilbert lowered his head as he sighed. Jines turned her head and did not say anything. Only the woman in the cloak happily snapped her fingers. "Aha, I like this kid."
Jines raised her head and chuckled bitterly and helplessly, her face was filled with sadness and sympathy. "True, this kid… He is only a child. How can he shoulder such a heavy burden and… future?"
There was a period of silence, until a raspy voice suddenly spoke up, "He can."
The woman in the cloak stuck out her chin. "Such fast recovery."
Gilbert and Jines looked behind them in surprise. There, the Masked Protector's silhouette appeared out of thin air.
However, weirdly, Yodel's figure was floating about and extremely blurry, as if covered by a veil made of air.
The bleary-figured Yodel spoke firmly, "He can shoulder those sorts of responsibilities. I understand him well. He has special qualities that no one else in this world has—not humans, not Gods, not demons. Not even Mystics."
There was another period of silence.
Gilbert shook his head and snorted lightly. He then tipped his hat in salutation. "I am sorry for excusing myself. The National Conference is only two hours away. Madam Jines, we should be seeing His Majesty."
Jines nodded and left together with Gilbert.
The two figures disappeared at the corridor some distance away as their footsteps faded away.
There were only the Masked Protector and the cloaked woman left.
"Your chest was pierced by three crossbow arrows laced with highly poisonous Vine Blue Grass. It has only been a night, and it's impossible that you are able to stand up." The cloaked woman looked at the bleary-figured Yodel and sighed loudly. "Did you make a deal with that mask again? I have warned you many times! The collapse of the Ancient Elf Kingdom is not unrelated to that mask! And you…
"What price did you pay this time?"
Yodel did not answer, he only stayed silent and caressed the purple mask on his face.
"No matter what price I paid," Yodel's figure slowly disappeared, and only his raspy voice remained. "It cannot compare to one ten-thousandth of the price that child will have to pay."